VOORHEES, NJ – It came by ship from Germany, then rode a super-sized tractor trailer to South Jersey – where a special crane moved the massive medical device into place.
The 10-foot-wide, drum-shaped machine weighs as much as four city buses, will cool to minus-452 degrees, and will accelerate sub-atomic, cancer-killing particles to about 450 million miles per hour.
But most important, this revolutionary equipment – installed recently next to Virtua Voorhees Hospital – will bring a new pathway to care to people with cancer from across the region. Called a cyclotron, it’s the technology behind proton therapy, the most advanced radiation treatment available.
Two of the region’s leading health systems have partnered to bring this care to southern New Jersey, with the construction of the Penn Medicine |Virtua Health Proton Therapy Center.
“This is a thrilling milestone in the creation of this facility, and in Virtua’s ongoing partnership with Penn Medicine,” said Stephanie Fendrick, FACHE, MBA, Virtua Health’s executive vice president and chief strategy officer. “Proton therapy offers new hope for individuals with complex or recurring cancers. With the creation of this center, South Jersey residents will be able to receive this state-of-the-art treatment close to home.”
When the facility opens in fall 2022, it will be the first proton therapy center in South Jersey and one of just 42 in the United States. This new, suburban community location provides patients added convenience of being nearer to home and loved ones while undergoing treatment and recovery.
To watch a video about the cyclotron’s delivery and learn more about the program, visit www.virtua.org/pennproton.
Penn Medicine is a pioneer in the field, starting with the 2010 opening of its Roberts Proton Therapy Center in Philadelphia.
“Penn has built an international reputation for excellence in cancer treatment and has trained more than 70% of the clinicians using proton therapy around the world,” said James Metz, MD, chair of Radiation Oncology at Penn Medicine. “We’re very excited for the opportunity to share this expertise with our colleagues at Virtua.”
A Patient’s Perspective
Deb Harris is another enthusiastic supporter of the new facility. The Voorhees resident – who received proton therapy at the Roberts Proton Therapy Center in Philadelphia in 2017 for a brain tumor, and who today is cancer-free, feels the location of the new center will make a major difference for people like her.
“The Penn Medicine | Virtua Proton Therapy Center will be huge for people who live in South Jersey,” she said. “That can minimize the stress of one more thing to think about when getting cancer treatment. They will have something right here in South Jersey that is much more easily accessible to them.”
Advantages of Proton Therapy
Proton therapy is a painless, noninvasive treatment that uses a beam of high-energy protons to destroy cancer cells.
Protons are positively charged particles within an atom. Doctors can finely control the proton beam, so it precisely hits the cancer and then stops, preventing radiation from moving through healthy tissue and surrounding organs.
This advanced form of radiation therapy offers new potential for recovery, survival, and improved quality of life. In particular, it’s an important treatment option for tumors located near highly sensitive areas (such as the spinal cord, heart, and brain) or for those that cannot be fully removed by surgery.
The treatment can be used for many cancer types, including brain, spine, breast, gastrointestinal (anal, colon, esophageal, liver, pancreatic, rectal), gynecologic (cervical), kidney, lung, lymphoma, mesothelioma, oropharyngeal, and prostate.
Preparing to Provide Care
The new Proton Therapy Center is a two-story structure that is connected to the existing Penn Medicine |Virtua Health Radiation Oncology suite. The cyclotron sits in an underground vault, whose concrete walls are eight to 21 feet thick.
The facility will offer a full range of services, including evaluation, treatment, and access to clinical trials involving proton therapy.
Although the building looks finished, it will require another year to complete precise calibrations of the equipment before the center can open for patients.
The cyclotron is the primary component in the delivery of proton therapy.
“It’s what speeds up the protons, creating the high energy needed to deliver targeted radiation to the desired depth in the body,” explained Dr. Metz.
As part of this process, the cyclotron’s superconducting coils are cooled to 452 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. When protons exit the cyclotron, they move at two-thirds the speed of light – or about 450 million miles per hour. At that speed, protons travel from the cyclotron to the patient in about 60 nanoseconds – or 60 billionths of a second!
This proton system is the newest, most advanced model in the world, called the ProBeam 360° System by Varian.
Partners in Serving the Community
Penn Medicine and Virtua Health began their collaboration in 2015, providing South Jersey residents with access to comprehensive care closer to home from teams of Penn and Virtua clinicians. The partnership includes both cancer and neuroscience services.
The new Proton Therapy Center is part of the Penn Medicine | Virtua Cancer Program, which provides a full range of state-of-the-art cancer services. The program has offices in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties, including the Virtua Samson Cancer Center in Moorestown, the Virtua Voorhees Cancer Center, and the Virtua Health & Wellness Center – Washington Township.
“Penn and Virtua’s collective impact on cancer care has been extraordinary, and the proton therapy center will break even more barriers to care,” said Virtua’s Fendrick. “It will be a powerful resource for the people in our community.”